A world just under your feet – but a million miles away from home

A project by Newcastle University’s Professor Roger Burrows has been ‘digging into’ the trend for basement developments in London. His work follows on from that of Prof. Steven Graham, which looks at the “luxified skies” resulting from high-specification apartment blocks.

The proliferation of planning applications for elaborate basements between 2007-2017 is symptomatic of a housing market that has been nothing short of an investment fund for a handful of individuals. This is starkly contrasted with many who are struggling in inadequate accommodation due to the disparity between wages and prices in the capital.  

Assessing thousands of applications, Burrows’ team put together a picture of extravagant designs featuring swimming pools, cinema rooms, spas, underground car parks and more. A notable feature of their findings was the clustering of these applications around certain postcodes where residual property prices have been so astronomical that sinking a few million pounds into building downwards still appeared to have been an attractive investment.

Clearly, this project has thrown light into dark places, although much of the information remains in shadow. The great irony is that those who are without homes may have been walking above vast mausoleums of uninhabited space. This is quite aside from the potential environmental, ecological, acoustic and structural damage that a collection of significant voids may engender.

So what? This research raises many crucial issues for planners and local authorities to consider: what counts as land – and how far below the surface can be considered in someone’s ownership? If they are not really about effective use of land (but rather wealth accumulation and prestige), can such developments truly be considered “sustainable”? Should policy refer to “the subscape” as a material consideration – and how on earth (or perhaps, below it) should planning officers go about making decisions on such applications?

There are no easy answers – and whilst the trend for basement development appears to be in decline, surely a new fad will emerge. But this project highlights that planning professionals need to be thinking critically about the trajectory of planning over a longer timescale than just a single application – and then acting accordingly. To do that, we need to peer into the dark spaces and listen for the unheard voices. 

If you have concerns about a development, please get in touch to see whether we can help you. 

Thanks to Professor Burrows and Newcastle University APL for presenting the research lecture.